One of the ways that Coca-Cola and other soft drink companies have been trying to save the shrinking market for their products is to persuade people that lack of exercise, not diet and the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, is the real cause of obesity.
To get across that discredited message, the companies have tried all sorts of tactics, including launching expensive advertising campaigns aimed at linking their products with physical activity and good health.
Among the more insidious of these efforts, however, has been the funding of highly questionable obesity research through seemingly neutral scientific organizations.
And now we learn — not surprisingly — that they have also been secretly funding journalism conferences on obesity. In a troubling article published last week in the journal BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal), journalist Paul Thacker uses documents he obtained under freedom of information laws to show how Coca-Cola sponsored the conferences specifically to sway reporters to its point of view.
“The tactic bore fruit,” Thacker points out. “In one example, a CNN reporter attended [a 2014 Coca-Cola-funded journalism conference at the University of Colorado] and later contributed to a story that argued that obesity’s cause could be lack of exercise, not consumption of sugary soft drinks.”
Critics — health experts who are dismayed at the soft drink industry’s ongoing efforts to confuse the public about the significant role its products have played in the obesity epidemic — told Thacker that Coca-Cola’s $37,000 funding of the event and the resulting story was “a better bargain than an advertisement placed on CNN’s website.”
Lack of transparency
Thacker describes two other Coca-Cola-sponsored journalism conferences — ones held in conjunction with the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based National Press Foundation, which has been running educational and training programs for journalists for more than 40 years. He notes, however, that the foundation may not have known about Coca-Cola’s role in these events, which, like the 2014 conference, were held at the University of Colorado.
Indeed, when the foundation’s president passed on to the university the concerns of a conference attendee about how such events were being funded, he was told that the money had come from “general educational grant resources.”
What he wasn’t told was that the educational grant for those particular conferences came from Coca-Cola.
In 2015, the University of Colorado had to shut down its nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network after the organization was exposed as being essentially a “scientific” front for its funder, Coca-Cola. The University of Colorado School of Medicine returned the $1 million that the beverage company had provided to start the organization.
Echoes of Big Tobacco
The actions taken by Coca-Cola to sway journalists are, of course, reminiscent of what the tobacco industry did for years as it attempted to muddy the scientific waters — and thus the public’s perception — about the deadly hazards posed by its products. Writes Thacker:
In 2004, researchers examined secret documents made public during tobacco litigation. Attempting to derail the effect of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 1993 report on secondhand smoke, the tobacco industry successfully placed stories in major print publications about the report’s “scientific weakness” to help “build considerable reasonable doubt … particularly among consumers,” the researchers wrote. They concluded that even journalists can fall victim to well orchestrated public relations efforts, regardless of the quality of the science used in these PR exercises.
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, told Hacker that although the reporters at the obesity conferences were misled, they shouldn’t have been so gullible. They should have known, she said, that the industry was behind the events, given who was speaking at them.
One conference panel featured, for example, representatives from Coca-Cola and McDonald’s who talked about their companies’ initiatives on obesity.
“Overall,” Nestle told Thacker, “this looks like an industry meeting framed as science, and the journalists bought into it. Coca-Cola got its money’s worth on this one.”
FMI: You can read Thacker’s article on the BMJ website.